Population Health & Wellness
Health Coach Services and Benefits

A rapidly growing number of companies are realizing there is incredible value in providing health coach benefits for employees. A workplace health coach program is one of the biggest ways to make an immediate impact. In just weeks, a health coach can improve health risk scores, lower ER utilization and pharmacy cost, and even improve overall mental wellbeing. When employers utilize health coaches, it creates a win-win scenario for employees and employers.

What Exactly is a Health Coach?

A health coach is a person trained in how to interact with a client to make plans and take concrete steps toward improving the client’s health. The health coaching provided is tailored to the specific needs of each client. Generally speaking, however, a health coach provides guidance on nutrition, fitness, and other habits connected to overall health. This kind of one-to-one relationship has proven to be very effective in motivating people to make progress on a wellness plan and achieving various health goals. A health coach is careful to help clients set realistic, achievable objectives, provide strategies for making progress, and managing the typical barriers that stand in the way of progress. A health coach can be thought of as a health mentor.

Is the Health Coach Approach Effective?

In a word, YES. The range of health issues a health coach can address is truly comprehensive. Whether it’s tobacco cessation, weight loss, managing chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes or hypertension or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stress reduction, diet and exercise, dealing with how to adjust to a life-altering medical event such as a heart attack, addiction, and so on. Below are some research studies that have shown the impressive results health coaching programs can achieve:

One study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine noted how a health coaching program “results in clinically relevant improvements in multiple biomarker risk factors (including systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, body weight, body mass index, waist circumference, and cardiorespiratory fitness) in diverse populations.”

Another study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology noted that health coaching was a viable intervention for reducing costly hospital admissions in people with COPD because of the gains it achieves in HRQoL (health-related quality of life).

A comprehensive review of literature published in 2017 by the Veterans Health Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs found that “health coaching interventions have the potential to produce small, positive, statistically significant effects on HbA1c [blood sugar] decreases, BMI [body mass index] reductions, physical activity increases, dietary fat reductions, and self-efficacy improvements.”

Circling back to the first study mentioned, the authors conclude: “In the future, we and others anticipate that evidence-based LHC [lifestyle health coaching] programs that have been proven effective in peer-reviewed published clinical trials will not only be deployed with increased frequency as part of employer-sponsored wellness initiatives but will also become a standard of care in daily clinical practice.” In other words, employers who want to get serious about improving the health of their workers should be providing health coach benefits for employees.

How Health Coaching Gets Results

One of the most effective techniques used by trained and certified health coaches is called motivational interviewing. This method gets a client to open up about how their life would be different if they made progress on any given health challenge they’re facing. Whereas a doctor might just come out and say, “You need to lose weight,” a health coach might say something more like, “How would your life be different if you lost the extra weight you’d like to lose?” This seems like such a small difference, but it has huge payoffs.

This kind of open-ended questions gets the client to start visualizing and articulating their own personal reasons for why they want to make change happen related to their health. It’s helping them take ownership and action on their own terms rather than just telling them what to do, which is likely to create friction and resistance. It’s a simple technique and surprisingly effective because it’s based on the health professional truly listening to what a client says, and engaging them where they’re at, both of which have become increasingly rare in people’s interactions with their regular doctor.

Positive Psychology is Another Cornerstone of Health Coaching. How does positive psychology make a difference? Rather than some traditional approaches to psychology where the primary objective seems to be identifying problems that need to be fixed and dwelling on them, positive psychology is about working with what has, can, and will work better for the client. It plays to their strengths to make progress toward health and wellness goals.

The VA literature review mentioned above summarizes the following three key aspects of health coach effectiveness:

  • Patient-centeredness: Was the coaching patient-centered, whereby coaching strategies and processes were tailored to the individual’s specific needs, concerns, circumstances, priorities, or readiness to change—or was the coaching applied uniformly without regard to individual differences?
  • Patient-determined goals: Did patients choose their own change goals and action steps as a target of the coaching—or were their goals preset or created by a professional?
  • Use of self-discovery: Did the coaching include a process of discovery or active learning (e.g., motivational interviewing) to increase patient awareness through examining strengths, values, and assumptions—or was the coaching instructional?

In other words, empowering and encouraging and supporting people to make behavioral changes toward positive and achievable health and wellness goals will naturally address a wide range of health problems without dwelling on the negative aspects of the problems and challenges.

Health Coaching Programs Through Employers

If health coaching can achieve improvements in the population health of an employer’s workforce, the results are lower healthcare spending on the part of the employer, not to mention money saved by less absenteeism and lost productivity from sick days due to poor health. Does it take an upfront investment to provide health coach benefits for employees? Yes, of course, but it’s one that more and more companies can have big long-term payoffs. And when employees see an employer is willing to invest in their health and wellness, there are additional benefits in retaining workers, improved morale, loyalty, satisfaction, and productivity that all combine into making the investment more than worthwhile.